Farmers Market 101: Grass Fed vs Grain Fed

When selecting your preferred cut of beef at the local butcher, have you ever thought about what you are about to eat has eaten? It makes sense that it would matter. After all, it’s ‘garbage in, garbage out’. This philosophy matters all the way down the food chain. Quality inputs result in quality outputs. Unfortunately, we the consumer, aren’t typically informed when the inputs down the food chain are substituted or degrade in quality. We are kept in the dark. Since the health impact of those changes is not immediate, we tend to be slow to respond if we don’t see the direct impact.

Back around the 3rd grade we learned that cows are ruminants (grass eaters). Its eight stomach digestive system converts grasses (including alfalfa, hay, and clovers) into the proper nutrients required for a cow to achieve optimal health. In contrast, our human stomach isn’t designed very well to process grasses directly (which we also might have learned in 3rd grade when we tried eating some of our front lawn). Good news though! We can process it indirectly through the consumption of beef, which our stomach can handle. In doing so, we indirectly get the nutritional benefits of grass via cows. Did you know that most cattle ranchers call themselves dirt farmers? If we keep thinking about quality inputs and look one step further down the food chain we see why. Healthy soil will result in healthy grass. If a rancher promotes a healthy soil, it will result in a cycle of health up the food chain:

Healthy Soil > Healthy Grass > Health Cows > Healthy Humans

Sadly, most Americans do not consume beef from healthy cows. They consume from cows suffering from obesity, disease, infection and illness. To combat these health problems, the cows are pumped full of antibiotics, hormones and steroids. About 80% of all antibiotics sold in the US are used for livestock and poultry. But why are the cows so unhealthy you ask? Their food input was changed. Instead of grass, the overwhelming majority of beef sold in the US now comes from cows fed a diet of corn, soy and grains. Why? Economics.

Less Expensive
Corn, soy and grain are cheaper. From 1997 to 2005, for example, taxpayer-subsidized grain prices saved feedlots and other CAFOs about $35 billion. They are cheaper due to our national Farm Bill subsidies. Most beef prior to 1950 was still grass fed. However, once national subsidies were put in place, ranchers quickly switched over to the cheaper food source. Even after figuring in the additional costs of antibiotics, hormones and steroids, it is still a cheaper alternative for the producer and results in cheaper end product, which makes consumers happy. Unfortunately, not all costs are being considered. If you could factor in the cost of health care and the environmental impact costs, it would be a different picture. However, these indirect costs don’t get the attention they deserve.

Decreased Production Time
Cows ‘fatten up’ quicker on a diet of corn, soy and grain. It takes cows about 4 years to reach slaughter weight when fed grass but only 13 months when fed their new diet. This diet works well with other animals too, like pigs, lamb, chicken and even fish! Yes, underwater species are now fed land dwelling foods. Odds are that tilapia you just bought was fed corn and soy pellets. Makes you think what might happen when humans are primarily fed this type of diet? As you hopefully know by now, that experiment is in already in progress with (obvious) results.

Moving away from grass and head first into grains and soy results in some additional negatives:

Less Nutrients
Significantly less vitamin E, beta-carotene, vitamin C, and fewer health-promoting fats, including omega-3 fatty acids and “conjugated linoleic acid”

Increased Toxins
All those nasty antibiotics, steroids and hormones used to keep the unhealthy cows alive gets passed on through the beef on your plate, and is typically stored in the fat.

We could go on forever with this topic, but will wrap it up here for now. We’ll save our thoughts about the inhumane treatment of non-grass fed cows and the environmental degradation from factory farming for another post.

Practical Takeaways:

  • Pay the higher cost for quality grass fed meats. If you can’t afford to get the same quantity as you usually would, spend the same amount to take home a bit less. When cooking beef, simply cook less and add more veggies to your plate instead.
  • If you can’t avoid the non-grass fed meat, be sure to trim the fat! Lots of toxins in that fat, so stay clear of it.